You know the phrase "Pretty as a picture"? Well, "Under the Tuscan Sun" is just that, the very quintessence of a pretty picture.
The movie is frothy and light and hasn't a brain in its head, but it's so beautiful to look at and so positive and uplifting, it's hard not to like. And the production may be the ultimate "woman's film," written by a woman, directed by a woman, and starring a woman, which may turn off the machismo in a lot of guys right there; but if males stick with it and not fight it tooth and nail, they, too, may find as I did that the movie can be totally charming.
It's true, there are all sorts of morals thrown about in the film, making it sound like a "Woman's Channel" special, but they can safely be ignored. While dubious lessons about love and hope and expectations abound in the film, not putting too much stock in them is the easiest route for a viewer to take, male or female. It's best simply to forget all that stuff and just go with the film's flow of energy from its characters, locations, and cinematography. Together, they produce something quite magical, quite apart from the magnifications of the story line.
Based on the best-selling memoirs of author Frances Mayes, the movie relates the experiences of a recently divorced woman from San Francisco who moves to the region of Tuscany in west-central Italy, where she encounters new friends, new family, and a new life. But the movie is followed by a disclaimer that reads, "...the characters and events in the picture have been fictionalized for dramatic effect." Presumably, Ms. Mayes's real-life adventures weren't dramatic enough for the filmmakers, so if you've read the book, expect something different from the movie.
Diane Lane stars as Frances, and next to the beauty of the Tuscan scenery she is the movie's greatest asset. Her spirit, focus, and enthusiasm as the American writer in a new land are a sheer delight. She goes to Italy on a tour arranged by two of her best friends, but they are gay friends and the tour is gay. While that doesn't stop Frances, who's straight, a 300-year-old villa in Tuscany does. It's for sale, and she immediately follows her instincts, quits the tour, and buys the house on a whim. She says she buys it for a life she doesn't even have, but she knows she'll someday be happy again. I'm not sure where the gay tour angle was supposed to lead, but it only lasts a few minutes and disappears forever. Oh, well.
Then she and we meet her new neighbors and the workmen who remodel the old place for her and the real-estate agent who befriends her and an incredibly handsome Italian man who looks to have stepped out of the pages of "Gentleman's Quarterly," and the fantasy sets in. Everyone in Tuscany is beautiful and everyone is in love--with each other and with life. Those crazy Italians. They know how to live.
But fantasy or not, it's fun to watch; so long as you know it's little more than a series of pretty picture postcards. There are several subplots thrown in for good measure: one about Frances's lesbian best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), who is pregnant; one about a flamboyant Italian actress, Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who worked for Fellini and is reliving "La Dolce Vita"; and another about a pair of young lovers who are in a "Romeo and Juliet" bind. None of them go very far, but each of them adds a touch of spice to the proceedings.
Moreover, as I've said, the movie's themes are bandied about with abandon. "Always try to keep your childish innocence," remarks Katherine. Then, unexpected tragedy strikes when most expected. Be careful when you wish for things, the Wife-O-Meter advised after watching the film, and realize that things don't happen just the way you figure on them to happen. Yet, with a little faith and a whole lot of patience, good things do happen to good people. Or something like that.
I was reminded of the Italian coastline in Norman Jewison's romantic comedy "Only You," which was funnier and more romantic than "Under the Tuscan Sun," and of the sweetness in Mike Newell's "Enchanted April," which was more touching than "Tuscan Sun." But that shouldn't take away from one's enjoyment of the splendid photography or Ms. Lane's performance. Despite my misgivings about the weightlessness of the plot, subplots, and themes, overall I found "Under the Tuscan Sun" a pleasure.
The colors on the screen may seem odd at first, but they are meant to emulate pastel paintings, the hues leaning to oranges and yellows primarily, the colors of the sunflowers so prominently on display in the Tuscan landscape. However, while a viewer can easily adjust to the brightness of the pastels, the colors themselves do not show up perfectly well in the transfer. The delineation is slightly rough, slightly blurred and jagged, with a small degree of color bleed-through. There is little or no grain to speak of, yet there are occasional moiré effects than can be annoying. The screen size is a 1.74:1 ratio, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, and that helps, I'm sure.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction is a little better represented here than the picture quality. It is clean and quiet, of course, but it also exhibits a good dynamic range and a strong sense of surround ambiance in things like rain storms, wind, thunder, and traffic. Even birds chirping behind the listener add to the naturalism of the situations. For a movie largely dialogue driven, the audio's added realism is helpful.
The bonus items are of the usual kind. There's the audio commentary with the director, Audrey Wells. There are the deleted scenes, three of them, including "Discovering the Fresco" and a montage of brief shots. There are the Sneak Peeks, trailers, for this film and three other Buena Vista releases. And there is the making-of featurette, the promotional, this one nine minutes long called "Tuscany 101," wherein the director and star explain what the film means and why it's so wonderful. There are a meager fourteen scene selections offered; English and French spoken languages; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
No, "Under the Tuscan Sun" is not very believable. It's more like a modern fairy tale, and its main character is a Cinderella beset with initial hardships but finding a "happily ever after" life in the end. Live with it. The story is meant to be a metaphor, anyway, not reality, and it's a very beautiful metaphor at that. Life can be happy if you let it and unhappy if you don't. Fair enough. I say look at the movie as you would an attractive painting on the wall. Let it speak to you as an individual, and if you like it, enjoy it, no matter what others may think. "Under the Tuscan Sun" is clearly gorgeous to watch. That can be enough.